The Wolverines and Buckeyes meet in Columbus on Saturday
Columbus, Ohio will be the epicenter of college football’s Week 13 schedule, as Ohio State hosts Michigan in a must-see Big Ten showdown between two bitter rivals. And as expected when these two teams meet, there’s plenty at stake for both programs. The Wolverines are a win away from an East Division title and a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game. Additionally, coach Jim Harbaugh’s team would move one step closer to the CFB Playoff. On the other sideline, Ohio State enters this matchup in an unusual spot. The Buckeyes are underdogs at home but are also a win away from a trip to the Big Ten title game.
Michigan lost its opener 24-17 to Notre Dame but has reeled off 10 wins in a row, seemingly getting better with every snap. The 10-game winning streak featured big wins over Nebraska (56-10), Wisconsin (38-13), Michigan State (21-7) and Penn State (42-7). Harbaugh’s team also has a win over Big Ten West Division champion Northwestern (20-17). The Wolverines are led by one of the top defenses in college football, limiting opposing offenses to just 13.5 points a game and 4.0 yards a play. Michigan’s offense entered 2018 as the biggest question mark surrounding this team and its hopes of a Big Ten title. However, the addition of Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson has provided stability and a playmaker for Harbaugh under center, and the offensive line has improved significantly since the opener against the Fighting Irish.
The 2018 season has been anything but normal for Ohio State. Coach Urban Meyer was suspended for the first three games of the year, with offensive coordinator Ryan Day appointed as the interim leader during that span. Even though Ohio State jumped out to a 7-0 start, there were plenty of cracks in the foundation in wins over Penn State (27-26), Minnesota (30-14) and Indiana (49-26). And those cracks resulted in a dismal showing and loss to Purdue on Oct. 20 (49-20). Meyer’s team has responded with three consecutive victories, but this team still has trouble establishing its ground game at times and is giving up too many big plays on defense. While those are certainly big-time issues, Ohio State needs only two more wins to have a reasonable shot at the College Football Playoff.
Michigan holds a 58-50-6 series edge over Ohio State. However, the Buckeyes have won 13 out of the last 14 matchups between these two teams. The Wolverines have not won in Columbus since 2000.
Michigan at Ohio State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 24 at Noon ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Michigan -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Battle in the Trenches
It seems cliche to say it, but it’s true: Teams have to be strong in the trenches in November to win a conference title or compete for a national championship. That’s especially true in the Big Ten with questionable weather late in the year.
When Ohio State has the ball, Meyer’s offense is going against a defensive line that features two of the best ends in college football. Rashan Gary has been dealing with a shoulder injury this fall but has accumulated 3.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss. Chase Winovich paces the defense with 13.5 tackles for a loss and ranks third on the team with four sacks, but his status for Saturday’s game is in question after suffering an injury in last week’s win over Indiana. If Winovich cannot go, it’s a huge setback to a team that ranks third in the Big Ten in rush defense (111.6 ypg allowed) and second in sacks (31). Having a healthy one-two punch of Winovich and Gary off the edge is crucial for Michigan to slow down Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins. The sophomore isn’t as mobile as last year’s starter (J.T. Barrett) and has only rushed for 93 yards this fall. While the Buckeyes have allowed only 16 sacks, rushers are only averaging 4.4 yards per rush (ranked eighth in the Big Ten). Since 2009, Ohio State has never finished lower than fourth in per-carry average.
Michigan’s offensive line was the biggest question mark surrounding this team going into the opener against Notre Dame. The Wolverines’ line struggled in that contest but has improved significantly over the last 10 games. Harbaugh took a big step in addressing this unit by hiring Ed Warinner as the program’s new line coach. Warinner’s experience in developing lines has paid big dividends, as Michigan has surrendered just 15 sacks and is averaging 5.03 yards per rush (up from 4.3 last fall). The Buckeyes lost standout end Nick Bosa to a season-ending injury in September, but this defense has struggled to stop the run all season. Ohio State ranks 10th in the Big Ten by giving up 4.7 yards per rush and has generated 19 sacks in league contests (down from 31 last fall). The defensive regression isn’t solely on the line, as the linebacker and secondary units have often been out of position and struggling to make tackles in the open field.
The battle up front isn’t the most glamorous matchup to watch, but it’s going to play a key role in the outcome of this game. Can Michigan’s offensive line hold up against an Ohio State front that features two of the Big Ten’s top linemen in Dre’Mont Jones and Chase Young? And on the flipside, can the Buckeyes hold off the Wolverines’ stout front?
2. Ohio State’s Offense Against Michigan’s Defense
It’s no secret the Big Ten’s best defense resides in Ann Arbor. However, it’s also fair to suggest Ohio State is the best offense Michigan has faced since playing Notre Dame in the opener.
Quarterback Dwayne Haskins has connected on 69.3 percent of his throws for 3,685 yards and 36 touchdowns to just seven picks. As mentioned above, Haskins doesn’t the mobility that Barrett possessed, but he can make a couple of plays a game on the ground. In addition to dodging the standout front from Michigan, Haskins will be throwing against a secondary that ranks No. 1 in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense. Cornerbacks David Long and Lavert Hill lead a secondary that has allowed only seven passing scores all season.
The one-two punch of running backs Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins hasn’t been as productive as most anticipated this season, but the Buckeyes are still averaging 182.4 yards a game on the ground. Dobbins leads the team with 915 yards and eight scores, with Weber posting 711 yards and four touchdowns through 10 contests.
Can Haskins and a deep Ohio State receiving corps find holes over the middle of the field to attack Michigan’s defense? Or will the Wolverines simply generate too much pressure up front, leaving a talented linebacker unit (featuring All-America contender Devin Bush) to consistently keep this unit behind the chains and in third-and-long situations? The Buckeyes can’t be one-dimensional on offense, so it’s crucial the line creates running room for Dobbins and Weber. Needless to say, the chess match between Day and Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown will be fun to watch on Saturday.
3. Michigan QB Shea Patterson (and the Ground Game)
After Michigan was forced to use three quarterbacks last fall and averaged only 25.2 points a game, Patterson’s arrival has sparked this offense and provided stability under center. The Ole Miss transfer is completing 65.9 percent of his passes for 2,177 yards and 18 touchdowns to just four picks. Patterson has tossed just two interceptions in Big Ten play and one over his last five games. Patterson’s big-time arm and accuracy has opened up the entire playbook for Harbaugh.
In addition to his standout passing numbers, Patterson’s mobility is an x-factor to watch on Saturday. The junior has rushed for 255 yards and two scores this year but has the ability to slide in the pocket to escape the rush or use his legs to create favorable throws on the run. Donovan Peoples-Jones (32 catches), Zach Gentry (30) and Nico Collins (29) are the favorite targets for Patterson in the receiving corps.
While Patterson’s arrival has been important for Michigan’s offensive revival, this unit still leans heavily on its ground game. Running back Karan Higdon has posted 1,106 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, with backup Chris Evans contributing 370 yards on just 66 attempts.
Getting off to a good start is critical for Michigan. Even though the Wolverines are improved offensively, this unit doesn’t move at a fast pace and can’t afford to fall behind by a couple of touchdowns early. Can Ohio State’s defensive line stuff Higdon and Evans on early downs, creating third-and-longs against Patterson? And how successful will the Buckeyes be at preventing big plays? If Michigan breaks a couple of big plays early, it’s tough to see Ohio State’s defense finding the right answers to slow down Patterson and Harbaugh’s attack.
On paper, Michigan is the better team. The Wolverines rank among the Big Ten’s best on offense thanks to the arrival of Shea Patterson and an improved offensive line. Michigan’s defense has also yet to allow an opponent to score more than 25 points this season and is loaded with talent at all three levels. Even though Ohio State has the same record (10-1) as Michigan, it feels like there’s a bit of a divide between the two programs in 2018. The Buckeyes are struggling to stop big plays on defense, and the offensive line/ground game has been inconsistent. However, if he gets solid protection from the line, Haskins is good enough to carry Ohio State to a victory on Saturday. The Buckeyes have dominated this rivalry in recent seasons and the homefield advantage should give Meyer’s team a boost. However, Michigan’s revenge tour hasn’t hit its last stop yet, as Harbaugh’s team crosses off an important hurdle with a win in Columbus this Saturday.